Identifying and defining digital literacy can be challenging for even the most seasoned of digital development practitioners. “My previous work was very much related to digital literacy, but I didn’t recognize it as such,” shared Erica Bustinza, Project Director for the Digital Strategy Activity under the Digital Frontiers Project, which supports the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Digital Strategy implementation.

“After thinking about my previous work further, I would say over 50 percent of our team’s time and the project budget were focused on digital literacy efforts. Despite this, and my years of experience in digital development, I hadn’t ever considered that this was a ‘digital literacy’ project,” Bustinza reflected during the recent “What is Digital Literacy Anyway?” panel at the Global Digital Development Forum (GDDF).

Oftentimes, digital development programming necessitates the digital literacy of target populations, leading many initiatives to intertwine digital literacy activities with other technical programming to bring their overall objectives to fruition. Recognition of the breadth and depth of digital literacy efforts is crucial to advancing digital development worldwide.

What is Digital Literacy Anyway?

In its forthcoming Digital Literacy Primer, USAID defines digital literacy as “the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate, and create information safely and appropriately through digital devices and networked technologies for participation in economic, social, and political life.”

“If that sounded like a mouthful, that’s because digital literacy encompasses a wide range of skillsets and competencies that span things like digital financial literacy, cybersecurity, social media advocacy, discerning mis- and disinformation, and so much more,” offered Araba Sapara-Grant, Digital Specialist at DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration and lead drafter for USAID’s Digital Literacy Primer.

“There is a growing understanding that there can be no digital development without digital literacy,” said Sapara-Grant. “However,” she explained, “based on the landscape assessment that we conducted for this Digital Literacy Primer, there seems to be some confusion about what digital literacy actually is, what combination of skills and competencies fall under this umbrella, and what one might even consider to be a digital literacy project or activity.”

How does Digital Frontiers Approach Digital Literacy?

DAI’s Digital Frontiers (DF) project works closely with USAID Missions and Bureaus, international and local development organizations, the private sector, and civil society to identify successful and sustainable digital development approaches and scale their impact globally. Promoting digital literacy, building cyber awareness, and combating disinformation are core workstreams. As a buy-in mechanism supporting a wide variety of activities across 40 countries, DF is uniquely situated to explore multiple approaches to digital literacy programming simultaneously. “Across the different types of approaches, we are experimenting and learning, adapting and iterating as we go,” said Komal Bazaz Smith, DF’s Digital Connectivity and Cybersecurity Partnership Project Director. “But there are a few key lessons that we have learned across these activities.”

Bazaz Smith continued: “What we are seeing work well are: understanding your user, meeting them where they are at, and building cyber and critical thinking skills/disinformation management into even the most basic digital literacy curriculum.” Digital Frontiers’ grantees are continuously working with DAI and other partners to tailor digital literacy programming to each unique local context and need.

“We must strive to understand our users first and foremost,” said Bazaz Smith. “Without user-centered research, we miss the boat in terms of developing digital literacy that fits the needs of those we seek to support.” To accomplish this goal, Digital Frontiers advocates beginning digital literacy interventions with a rapid assessment of actionable research or a listening session with the target individuals or communities.

For example, in Guatemala, grantee New Sun Road (NSR) is currently developing a digital literacy program aiming to improve the digital skills of 1,000 rural women. Under the USAID/Microsoft Airband Initiative, NSR seeks to increase the economic opportunities for indigenous women in rural Guatemala by providing access to electricity, internet connectivity, and digital skills training. Adopting a user-centric approach to their digital literacy curriculum design, NSR conducted focus groups with 122 women from across 10 rural communities in the Alta Verapaz region of Guatemala. These focus groups ensured that NSR had an accurate picture of the current level of digital skill in the community, including general literacy levels, internet experience, and what social and/or economic challenges the beneficiaries face in accessing digital services. This approach helped Digital Frontiers and NSR tailor their programming and services—which include the establishment and maintenance of digital community centers in the region—to better meet the needs of indigenous women.

Digital Literacy Blog.jpgDigital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) conducts trainings with women entrepreneurs. Photo credit: DEF

Cyber Safety and Critical Thinking in Digital Literacy Interventions

Digital literacy efforts must go beyond instruction in how to use and access devices and online spaces and must facilitate critical thinking about the potential impact and consequences of digital engagement. In India, Digital Frontiers—under the DCCP umbrella—works with the Digital Empowerment Foundation (DEF) and its rural women entrepreneurs and women-led community development organizations to implement digital upskilling activities across seven states in India. “To be digitally literate, our citizens and entrepreneurs should be able to take part in the digital economy and engage effectively with the tools that they need to be able to do that. But that isn’t enough. If they know how to use their tools but expose their businesses to a possible hack, then they have become even more vulnerable,” warned Bazaz Smith.

“The work that we do with DEF includes everything from understanding the various features of a smartphone and how to access online and mobile banking to incorporating safety tips and cyber hygiene into our literacy curriculum,” explained Bazaz Smith. “We have worked with DEF to include disinformation and media literacy in the curriculum as well, as we know the exorbitant amount of fake news that is spreading across the digital economy.”

The proliferation of mis- and disinformation and the emergence of malign cyber profiteers and politicians have profoundly impacted the way the development field introduces digital interventions. “Our entrepreneurs and other audiences now need to be able to think critically about the information that they are consuming—so, passwords and two-step authentication, yes. But, also, critical thinking skills, disinformation, and misinformation training—how to spot it, how to ignore it, what to do when you see it, how to help reduce its virality,” explained Bazaz Smith.

Data Privacy Risks and Data Rights

“Every time I think about a digital literacy curriculum, I think of my two kids,” shared Bazaz Smith. “I think of my two kids because I’m thinking, ‘OK, do I even want to put a cell phone in their hands?’ What are the dangers, what are the risks? How are they going to be used and manipulated? I think of that every time I think of the curriculum we’re trying to develop, because we have to understand what some of those dangers are and what some of those potential consequences are, too.”

Osama Manzar, Founder and Director of DEF, said that digital development practitioners should always ask the tough questions around cybersecurity and data privacy when considering digital literacy programming. “As soon as you put your thumb on your screen, you are a data point… Is that something that digital literacy is taking into consideration?” Manzar asked. “Is digital literacy leading in the right direction and not leading to data rights violations, human rights violations?… As soon as [users] get [a smartphone], do they really know that they are being used as a consumer and as a user and they are the data, the product?”

The most effective digital literacy interventions identify what challenges and barriers exist and ask what challenges and barriers may be introduced as a result of digital immersion. In what ways is digital literacy advantageous to a population in the short and long term? Digital safety and digital rights are essential pillars of sustainable digital literacy interventions.

When asked about the constant struggle of defining digital literacy and identifying digital literacy efforts across the development field, Manzar asserted: “Digital literacy is not about a script. It’s not about alphabets. It’s not about keyboards. It’s not about the screen. It’s not about language. [Digital literacy] is despite all this.” Manzar’s comment highlights that digital literacy is often both a means and an end, permeating a surprising number of development programs and improving beneficiaries’ quality of life—online and off.

As practitioners become increasingly aware of their projects’ relationship to the concept of digital literacy, discussions about all it encompasses—including cyber safety, critical thinking, and data rights—will only grow in significance. “USAID will increase our efforts to improve digital literacy of all people to advance development,” the agency pledged in its Digital Strategy. With this charge in mind, Digital Frontiers and its partners have committed to uncovering digital literacy’s many dimensions and applying lessons learned in a tangible, robust, and holistic way.